Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Lightning strikes this week as Rupert wanders into the world of data destruction

Monday 13/10/2003
Computers don't always thrive in the real world, as a story about peculiar data destruction shows. Now we have computers small enough to leave in trouser pockets, I expect a big increase in laundry-related data loss incidents and "The dog ate my PDA!" Although with wireless, it should be possible to extract one's documents from inside Fido -- thus giving the lie to Groucho Marx's saying that "Outside a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read."

My favourite dead computer belonged to Sinclair Research, a company responsible for many hundreds of thousands of the things in its time. The main R&D labs lived in a place called Milton Hall, just outside Cambridge, which was perched on top of the only hill for miles around. Very flat, Cambridgeshire: the hill was thus oversubscribed by local utilities and other radioactive bods, who took advantage of the slight height advantage to plunk down a large radio mast festooned with aerials.

The other notable subscriber to the hill was the weather. While Cambridge is not the most heavily storm-infested place in the country, it has its fair share of thunder and lightning. Lightning has a distinct fondness for high places, especially those with something nice and conductive down which it can run its high voltage fingers. Milton Hall wasn't just the best option for those lonesome electrons, it was the only option. With crackling regularity it gathered in the volts, dispersing them to ground with mighty pulses of current.

Alas for the Sinclairites, those were the days when the world ran on minicomputers -- connected to the desks of the working stiffs via hundreds of yards of RS232 cable. Or, as a physicist might like to think of them, antennas. One good slug of Thor's Finest down the tower outside, and hundreds of volts magically appeared on the wires. Back in the machine room, the terminal interface cards had barely time to gasp "Parity Error!" as thundering electronic death welcomed them to Vaxen Valhalla. The system manager got on the blower to Digital, while we dispersed through the rain and wind to the nearest safe place or refuge to calm our nerves in time-honoured liquid fashion.

Wireless networking is all well and good, but there are some things it can never fully emulate.

Tuesday 14/10/2003
Tiny is always fun. Via thinks so -- it's announced its Eden-N 1 GHz x86 processor chip, which at 15x15mm is smaller than a penny. It gets away with seven watts at that gigahertz too, which means you don't need a fan ten times bigger than the chip to keep things in order. And what sort of motherboard suits such a tiny sliver of silicon? Glad you asked, says Via -- the 15cmx15cm Nano-ITX motherboard, that's what.

This still isn't quite small or parsimonious enough to build, say, a cellphone that runs XP -- always supposing such a thing is in any way sane. But it's getting there. The whole trend is towards a breakdown of the traditional chip definitions: this one's for a server, this one for a desktop, this one for a portable computer and this one for a pocket device. Of course, it suits chip companies to keep those distinctions alive, but as Intel will find out next year it's going to be hard selling a large, hot chip against a small, cool one that happens to work better. It's even harder when those chips share a lot of the same designs. Intel is a past master of moving functional blocks from one product to another, even across families: if you look at the MMX block in the XScale processor so equipped, you'd be hard put to see any differences with the MMX block in the Pentium.

None of which worries Via. Without a set of competing processor designs to balance, it can get on with the job in hand of producing nice little x86 chips that slide into current and forthcoming niches and don't have to be compromised by the need of other parts of the company to recoup their investments.

Wednesday 15/10/2003
Roadmaps are the lifeblood of high-tech marketing. Reassuringly precise, they show that despite any evidence to the contrary, company planners have a solid strategy for the years ahead, with a regular supply of new and exciting products scheduled to come rattling in as the seasons change. Alas, real life rarely reads maps: this week, we've had Intel being rather reticent over exactly what it means by "Prescott in Q4", and conversely Microsoft saying that the next service pack for XP would be later this year, not late next year as the Web site roadmap said.

Or, possibly not later this year, according to a later statement.

It might be more fun to do it the Chinese way: keep absolutely shtum for a year or two then announce the rocket's going up tomorrow. OK, so it makes it harder for your salesforce to get out there and extract promises of money, and it would badly curtail the wholesale peddling of semi-informed speculation on which so many of us IT hacks rely, but neither of these are essential to the great march of progress. We're already used to well-drilled cadres of marketing people standing ramrod straight behind the podium as they announce total devotion to the motherland and utter faith in the wisdom and greatness of their leaders. It's only a small leap to dressing them up in natty uniforms with funny hats, awarding them medals for notable efforts in the constant fight against the running-dog forces of reaction and exploitation, and perhaps a little drill practice on a Monday morning.

All companies are de facto dictatorships: democracy has little to say about the inner working of yer average capitalist conglomeration. CEOs the world over are fond of military analogies, especially when it comes to motivating the workforce in the face of competition. Some even fly their own jet fighter aircraft. So take the next logical step, chaps. Discipline, that's what this industry needs, and let the only roadmaps be those showing the invincible advance of the forces of foot, company car and heavy delivery vehicles on the stronghold of the opposition.

Thursday 16/10/2003
Sales of Kevlar-lined trousers are in decline, as Kyocera announces that it doesn't have a problem with detonating mobile phones after all. Nokia's still scratching its head over a couple of reports that its mobiles are prone to demonstrate the famous "exploding wireless market" cliché with some emphasis.

It's going to become more of a problem. Battery engineers are constantly trying to store more power in ever smaller spaces, with the result that a cell can now contain more than enough ergs to spectacularly disintegrate if mishandled. Laptop power sources can easily hold fifty or sixty watt-hours, which is more than enough to take out a passing child if dissipated rapidly: sure, they have lots of safety features but now and again something goes wrong. Fuel cells may not be much better, as they tend to slosh around with nicely flammable liquids. Even the wonderful wind-up generator in Trevor Bayliss' radios has a tightly coiled steel spring capable of slicing through the odd finger if unleashed, and I've managed to slice a thumb on the shattered glass from a broken solar cell. Nothing is safe!

Not that such things are always accidental. In 1996, the Israeli security service is widely supposed to have disposed of a Palestinian bomb-maker by rigging a mobile with a small pack of explosives. Just trigger the thing by sending the right text message and you can pick off your enemies at will: that's what I call a ring tone. Rather worryingly, the head of the security service at the time, one Ya'akov Peri, later became the head of the Israeli cellphone company Cellcom. If he calls, I'm out...

Friday 17/10/2003
Hot news from Southwark Court! Aaron Caffrey, the nineteen-year-old whose computer launched a denial of service attack that crippled the Port of Houston, has been found not guilty. His defence -- that someone else hacked into his computer, took it over and used it for the attack -- clearly raised enough doubt in the minds of the jury to get him off the hook. Tons of expert witness testimony that there was no evidence of this having happened couldn't counter the proposition that it might have done. Expert jurors might have had a different view of the balance of probabilities, but you get to be tried by your peers in this country. And a good thing too.

This is going to make it very hard to prosecute hackers in the future, as the key evidence will always be on a computer and computers will always be open to this sort of doubt -- at least, until the vision of secure systems that only run signed code comes about. 

On the other hand, if some canny black hat has already secreted something untoward on your PC, how could you tell? Antivirus software can only scan for things that have caused trouble or otherwise called attention to themselves; even the heuristic stuff that looks for bad behaviour rather than known bad code can't do much until the infection kicks off. A stealth virus that quietly and slowly creeps around the place, keeping its head down until triggered, is almost certain to occur at some point. It might be here already: could we tell?

Me, I'm turning off my computer and fleeing the country for the weekend. Whatever happens, it wasn't me.

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